Baltimore was a nice story when Lewis announced he was retiring at the end of the season. They were even more compelling in beating Indianapolis in the wild-card round, in what became the final opportunity for him to celebrate on his home field. Now the Ravens are something completely different after upsetting Denver on Saturday -- they're a team that fully believes that destiny is working in its favor. That's a great edge to have at this point in the season because it can carry a team through setbacks, struggles and all the predictable skepticism that hovers over an underdog.
** ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley writes about the Ravens increasingly looking like a team of destiny.
There always seems to be a team that gets hot late and makes an improbable championship run. The hot team this season is the one that emerged victorious after braving 4 hours, 11 minutes in minus-1 wind chill temperatures. It's a Ravens team that is headed to its third AFC Championship Game in five seasons but never before in such improbable fashion.
This marks the sixth time since the 1970 merger that the same two teams are playing in the conference championship game in back-to-back years. While the Ravens are motivated to settle the score after how last year's championship game ended, NFL history isn't on the Ravens' side. The teams that won the first meeting in the championship game are 5-0 in the rematch. The last time this happened in the AFC was 1986 and 1987, when the Broncos beat the Browns both times to go to the Super Bowl. The Ravens are 1-2 in AFC championship games, beating the Raiders in the 2000 season before losing to the Steelers in the 2008 season and the Patriots last year.
If you're looking for a clear-cut favorite among the NFL's final four teams, look no further than the quarterbacks. The disparity between Brady and his counterparts makes the New England Patriots the hands-down favorite to win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
** SI.com's Don Banks says that it's time for the Ravens to pay Joe Flacco.
Flacco has his issues with disappearing at times in big games, and makes some ill-advised throws with his strong arm. But he was superb in the cold of Denver on Saturday, is one of the game's top eight quarterbacks -- in the upper 25 percent -- and deserves to be paid like it. Saturday's victory was his finest hour in Baltimore, given how little chance he and his Ravens were given of upsetting Manning and the Broncos, and there would be plenty of teams lining up to pursue him in free agency if he got to the market.
** Grantland's Bill Barnwell also weighs in on what Flacco's performance Saturday means for his contract negotiations.
The win offers Flacco more than a signature victory to claim as his very own. It was a signature victory in the playoffs with the sort of numbers that take a backseat to nobody, a win over the greatest quarterback in NFL history in a shootout. If that's not enough to convince the Ravens that they should give him market value on a contract extension, he'll hit free agency on the heels of his most impressive career performance. Unless he's just terrible against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, teams aren't going to forget this. My estimate is that it did enough to boost the guaranteed money in Flacco's deal by a few million dollars, and if it comes down to a bidding war between the likes of the Chiefs, Cardinals, and Jaguars, I think Flacco's next deal could approach $40 million in guaranteed money. Even scarier, Saturday night might have proved that Flacco is worth it.